Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Not all stories are strictly chronological in their structure. Sometimes, when people tell a story in real life, they shift back and forth (e.g. ‘OK, so ___ decided to go out for drinks. Let me tell you what ___ did while he was gone.’). That’s also true of some crime novels. As an example of how that structure plays out, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs.
The story begins in 1974 at a monastery in the Swiss Alps. An unnamed art restorer is there, looking at some frescoes at a chapel there, with an eye towards restoring them. One day, he meets an old man who’s living at the monastery’s home for the aged. The old man offers to tell him a story – a good story – in exchange for a recording of that story. With the agreement made, the old man begins his tale.
The tale, which starts at the turn of the 20th Century, concerns the family of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his three sons, Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick’ and Leonardo ‘Leo.’ According to the old man, in about 1900, the Franco family moved from Italy to New York, where Ben made a living as a shoemaker. Soon enough, he opened his own shoe shop/workshop, later changing the family name to Frank. The business did well, and the family prospered. In short: he and his family were starting to live the stereotypical American dream.
Sadly, Ben turned to drink and, one night, got into a bar fight. In the end, he killed a man named Luigi Lupo. As if the fact of his crime (and subsequent imprisonment) weren’t enough, it turned out that this victim was the son of a notorious Mob leader, Tonio Lupo, known as the ‘Scourge of Brooklyn.’ Lupo swore revenge, pronouncing a maledizione – a curse – on the family. He promised Ben that each of his three sons would die at the age of forty-two, the same age as his own son was at his death.
Now, the old man moves on in the story, and begins to tell the tale of what happened to Al, Nick, and Leo Frank. Al takes over the family business, makes wise decisions, and becomes very wealthy. As the oldest, he also takes on the responsibility for the rest of the family. Nick becomes an actor, successful for a while, and makes some well-known films. Leo’s the youngest, so for years, he’s under the protection of his oldest brother. After many, many wrong turns and dubious deals, he ends up working for one of the family businesses.
All along, though, those loyal to the old capo Tonio Lupo have not forgotten his curse on the Frank family. And as it turns out, Lupo made plans to ensure that his curse would be carried out. As the old man continues to tell the story, we learn what the fate of the three brothers was. We also learn what happened afterwards.
One element in this novel is a sense of ‘cat and mouse.’ Both Al and Nick Frank know of the curse, and both take it seriously. So they each take precautions in their own ways. At the same time, Lupo and his associates are no slouches. For years, Leo doesn’t know about the curse. When he does learn of it, he, too, takes it seriously and finds a different way to try to thwart the person who may be looking for him. So there is an element of suspense as the brothers try to prevent their fate, as it were, from overtaking them.
This story mostly takes place in the years between about 1920 and 1953, so there’s also a strong element of history in the novel. The lives of the Frank brothers are very much impacted by the Great Depression, World War II, the coming of sound to Hollywood films, and other historical events, and Doxiadis weaves them into the novel.
Also woven into the story is the culture of Italian-American life, and of the American Mafia. This isn’t a brutal novel, but the Mafia certainly plays a role in what happens. So does the Italian-American culture. Interestingly, we also get a sense of the immigrant culture as we see the Frank family assimilate into early 20th Century American life, while at the same time maintaining several Italian traditions.
The story isn’t told in a strictly chronological fashion. In the broader sense, it begins with Ben Frank’s life and death, and moves on to his sons’ stories. So on that level, it’s told in sequence. But the old man telling the story frequently moves back and forth in time, catching his listener up first with Al’s story, then with Nick’s, then with Leo’s. Here, for instance, the old man has told what happened to Al during his adulthood, and now moves on to Nick:
‘Now, let’s go back in time, Signore, to the killing of Luigi Lupo. As I’ve already told you, Ben Frank told of the maledizione to Al Frank, during their last meeting, and Al shared the secret, as he felt he had to, with Nick…
Now, Nick Frank was a very different guy from Al…’
This narrative structure is more like a verbal story than a written story told in sequence. That makes sense, considering that the novel is mostly the recordings of an old man’s tales. But readers who prefer a chronological structure will notice this.
The story also resembles an oral tale in the way that language is used. There are interruptions, pauses, some profanity, occasional words in Italian (clarified, for those who don’t speak that language), and so on. Readers who prefer standard language (as it’s written) over the casual language of speech will notice this.
The end of the novel takes place in modern times, with the art restorer saying that the tapes he made are now ‘several decades’ old. But the story of the Frank family still has an impact, and the last part of the novel shows that. Readers who enjoy unexpected twists will appreciate this.
There is a philosophical tone to some of the story, too. Is there really such a thing as a curse? Is there such a thing as redemption? And is there such a thing as inescapable fate? These and other questions come up as the old man recounts the story and adds his own thoughts to it.
Three Little Pigs is the story of an immigrant American family, and of what happens to its members when fate, as the saying goes, catches up with them. It features an unusual narrative structure (the oral telling of a tale), and places the reader firmly in the first few decades of the 20th Century. But what’s your view? Have you read Three Little Pigs? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Terror in Taffeta – Marla Cooper
Monday 23 May/Tuesday 24 May – Burial of the Dead – Michael Hogan
Tuesday, 1 June/Wednesday 2 June – For the Love of Mike – Rhys Bowen
Thank you. We now return you to the scheduled international celebration of Billy Joel’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Joel!!!